Continental Drifts

Continental Drifts

Mini Teaser: America and the Continent may find themselves once again a united force to be reckoned with by the rest of the world. But the odds are grim.

by Author(s): Geoffrey Wheatcroft

AS THE new year opened with Hamas rockets and Israeli shells exploding over what we used to call the Holy Land, that frightening fireworks display also obliquely illuminated one of the great political developments-and great challenges-of the past generation, the growing gulf between the United States and Western Europe. The two have been closely allied before and may be so again, but the odds against that are lengthening, and recent events only see a culmination of the trends of decades past, as Europe steadily drifted in one direction and America in the other. When seeking friends in the coming century, each may be increasingly tempted to look elsewhere than across the Atlantic.

As usual, Washington offered "unwavering" support to Israel. Meantime, and also as usual, the European Union was cutting an ignominious figure, or figures. In a painfully accurate jibe, Henry Kissinger once said that he would take "Europe" seriously when "Europe" had a number he could call in a crisis. His words were given fresh meaning by the antics of President Nicolas Sarkozy, who failed to notice that France had just relinquished the rotating presidency of the eu to the Czech Republic and set off on his own peace mission to the Levant, to the great confusion of the Czechs and everyone else.

At the same time, there was a wider gap than ever between European and American perceptions of the conflict. Merely to follow those wrenching events through the American or the European news media is to be jolted by the dissonance: seen on either side of the Atlantic, Gaza might be two entirely different stories. So might a number of other urgent topics of the moment. The question of Turkey, and the way that it has become such a cause of contention between the European Union and the United States, deserves treatment on its own and at length. For the moment, it need merely be said that when the sometime-European Commissioner Chris Patten (once a British cabinet minister, now chancellor of Oxford) remarked that it was very good of the Americans to keep offering Turkey membership in the eu, but this is a matter in which the Europeans might feel they have some say themselves, he was speaking for the rest of Europe. And Iraq of course was another litmus test, the two continents reacting quite differently.

Six years ago, the war not only divided Europe from America but apparently divided Europe within itself. Except that it didn't really: popular sentiment was strongly opposed to the war, in every country. As the war approached, there were immense demonstrations against it all over Europe-half a million marching peaceably in Berlin, and numbers not far short in London, Rome and Barcelona-with two leaders heeding their citizenry and opposing the invasion, Gerhard Schröder of Germany and Jacques Chirac of France. What distorted the picture was that a number of European leaders, notably Tony Blair, Silvio Berlusconi and José María Aznar, chose to support Bush against the wishes of their own electorates. (In Blair's case, this required a considerable degree of misrepresentation or even plain deception, of inflated intelligence claims, "dodgy dossier" and all. His compatriots certainly remembered that when they watched Blair receive a presidential medal from Bush in January 2009.)

In turn, it was European opposition to the war that provoked an outpouring of contemptuous and somewhat vulgar American indignation: those cries of "cheese-eating surrender monkeys," congressmen eating "freedom fries" and Thomas Friedman saying in the New York Times that France should be "voted off the island." The European response confirmed in some American eyes the thesis which Robert Kagan, the prominent neoconservative writer, had already formulated under the catchy slogan "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus." This was further elaborated in his book Of Paradise and Power, which by coincidence was published a few days before those demonstrations. The gulf was now unbridgeable, Kagan claimed, between irenic or pacifistic or flabby Europeans, inhabiting their "Kantian" universe of rights and ideals, and hard, realistic "Hobbesian" Americans, who understood the need for war of all with all. Kagan didn't put it quite like that, but he did say that it was "time to stop pretending that Europeans and Americans share a common view of the world, or even that they occupy the same world."

He might have been right, although not in the way he intended. Even Kagan should admit that the events of the past six years have given some color to European skepticism about the desirability of unilateral intervention or the universal efficacy of force. In his final press conference, Bush forlornly admitted that his "mission accomplished" stunt when he landed on the uss Abraham Lincoln in May 2003 might now seem ill-advised. But then, that was only the high-water mark of much hubristic American boasting. We were told that the invasion had been a success when Saddam's statue was toppled, and again when he was discovered (and once more, if not in so many words, when he was hanged), and now we have been told that the "surge" has worked. Of course it was bound to in simple and temporary military terms, but that leaves unanswered the question Europeans proposed at the beginning: whether the invasion was based on any rational and feasible political project.

Going back a little further to 2002, we were told by two Washington Post columnists about another great victory. The late and much-lamented Michael Kelly, killed covering the invasion of Iraq, proclaimed "the triumph (and it is, over all, clearly that) of the American campaign in Afghanistan," and his colleague Charles Krauthammer again berated European feebleness when he said, "The proximal cause of nato's death was victory in Afghanistan-a swift and crushing U.S. victory that made clear America's military dominance and Europe's consequent military irrelevance." Today the weight of military opinion-certainly British military opinion-is that the campaign in Afghanistan, though originally more justifiable than the Iraq War, is even less winnable. President Obama may yet regret his election promise to increase the forces there.

Even though there is still no serious prospect of a common European telephone number for the secretary of state to call, Europeans are if anything more united than ever in their skepticism about war, and in particular-for all the rampant Obamamania-about the likelihood that the United States, under any administration, is equipped to spread democracy and free markets at gunpoint.


THIS ESTRANGEMENT is a curious outcome. Europe and America had long been intimately and symbiotically connected from when the United States began life as an English colony and its population hugely increased over the next one hundred and forty years through immigration, first from the British Isles and Germany, later from the rest of Europe. Then twice in the twentieth century the United States drastically broke with its previous tradition of isolationism by entering European wars, in 1917 and in 1941, and after that by forging the North Atlantic alliance.

In a certain light, the European Union and the United States can thus appear as brothers and equals. Here are two great democratic polities, with representative government, a rule of law and market economies (albeit economies more than a little troubled at present). The American population recently surpassed 300 million and, at more than 490 already, the eu will before long reach 500 million. Their total gross domestic products are very close, with one or the other ahead according to the exchange rate, although that means of course that American per capita income is still considerably higher than European, and so it will remain, recession or not.

So this Atlantic community is on the face of it united by common values. The United States joined Great Britain (a little belatedly) in liberating the conquered countries of Western Europe from the Third Reich. Those countries which had defeated one totalitarianism went on to create the nato alliance, which guarded Western Europe from the new Communist threat. Forty years after nato's founding, the Berlin wall came down, the Soviet Union imploded and its former satrapies went their own ways. In hindsight it may be that nato always rested on a fable convenu, the idea that the president of the United States would be prepared to see dozens of American cities destroyed to defend West Germany once the Red Army crossed the Elbe. We must be grateful that this was never put to the test. But as a matter of course, the two sides of the Atlantic appeared as one for much of the twentieth century.

And yet, for all this boasting of shared ideals and a single purpose, even during the heyday of the cold war the Atlantic alliance concealed many differences and resentments. Perhaps we should not now be so surprised to see the rifts turning into chasms. There was from the beginning a grave disparity in sharing the cost of the alliance. "We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty," President Kennedy said in his inaugural speech-and what a burden nato was for his country! Kennedy's predecessor had seen that. "Because we have had our troops there," President Eisenhower said, "the Europeans have not done their share. They won't make the sacrifices to provide the soldiers for their own defense," and this was true. It has led, in the end, to a Europe buoyed by social services and an America encumbered by debt much exacerbated by military spending.

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